Understanding New Jersey's laws on the disposition of pets in divorce

The Legal Status of Pets in Divorce Proceedings

When couples with pets decide to divorce, the question of who gets to keep the beloved family animal can become a contentious issue. In New Jersey, as in many other jurisdictions, the legal system has traditionally viewed pets as personal property. This perspective means that in divorce proceedings, pets are subject to division just like furniture or vehicles. However, recent legal discussions and some case law suggest a shift towards considering the well-being of the pet, similar to how child custody is determined.

New Jersey's Approach to Pet Custody

In New Jersey, there's no specific statute addressing pet custody in divorce cases. Instead, courts have discretion in deciding who retains ownership of a pet after a divorce. They may consider various factors such as who was the primary caretaker, who has the closest bond with the pet, and who is better equipped to provide for the pet's needs going forward.

For example, in Houseman v. Dare, a 2009 New Jersey case, the court awarded visitation rights for a dog. The decision marked a departure from treating pets solely as property and acknowledged the emotional significance of pets in people's lives.

Factors Influencing Pet Disposition in Divorce

The following are common factors New Jersey courts may consider when determining pet custody:

Additionally, if children are involved and they are particularly attached to the pet, this may sway a judge to keep the pet with the primary custodial parent to minimize disruption for the children.

Drafting a Pet Custody Agreement

To avoid uncertainty and litigation, some couples opt to create a pet custody agreement as part of their divorce settlement. This agreement can detail arrangements for shared custody or visitation schedules for pets similar to those established for children. It may also address financial responsibilities for pet care post-divorce.

Negotiating Pet Disposition Out of Court

Given that litigation can be expensive and time-consuming, many divorcing couples choose to negotiate the disposition of their pets outside of court through mediation or collaborative law processes. These methods allow for more creative solutions tailored to the specific needs of both the pets and their owners.


New Jersey's approach to pets in divorce remains grounded in property law but is increasingly influenced by considerations of care and attachment. Couples facing divorce should be mindful of these factors and consider negotiating a mutual agreement regarding their pets to avoid potentially distressing court battles.